Sunday, June 29, 2008

My week in Florida

Last Sunday, June 22, I caught a morning flight to Ft. Lauderdale from Kansas City. I am entering my third year of a three year stint as an elected member of the 10-member Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee. We arrive a day and a half early for meetings. Our Sunday evening gathering consisted of an opening worship service plus some work on our agenda in addition to a few small "nuts and bolts" items.

The next morning we went to work in earnest. Our main piece of business for the day consisted of an orientation for the incoming Exec. members and a farewell to the outgoing members. We adjourned at 4:30 to attend a reception for all of our other colleagues who flew into town on Monday.

Ministry Days commenced on Tuesday and began with a worship service for the 500+ ministers who were in attendance. This was followed by our keynote presenter, the renowned Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman gave a wonderful lecture about the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. During the Q+A segment I tried to stump him by asking him to contrast his interpretation of the Exodus story with Harvard professor Jon Levenson's interpretation of Exodus. This provoked a hilarious reaction from Brueggeman who grimaced and ground his forefinger into his forehead before giving a stunning response, including referencing the relatively obscure Levenson essay to which I was referring. The highlight of Tuesday afternoon consisted of an hour of discussion with UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford.

Wednesday was the second day of ministry days and it kicked off with the always-moving 25/50 service. This worship service honors those completing 25 and 50 years in the ministry and each class votes to elect a class speaker. Elizabeth Strong offered the 25 year address and Khoren Arisian delivered the 50 year address. As a member of the UUMA Exec., I had a role in the service, reading Stephen Spender's powerful poem "I think continually of those." (This means I had to schlep my robe all the way to Florida for a 90-second reading.)

Following the service, came the annual UUMA business meeting. This was followed by lunch and then by break-out "collegial conversations." I led a collegial conversation on how the Emergent movement could impact Unitarian Universalism. I offered an introduction to the Emergent movement, made observations about Emergent theology and worship forms, and then invited my guests, Rev. Ron Robinson and Rev. Ken Beldon to make comments about how they have implemented Emergent practices in the congregations they serve. With 50+ attendees, our conversation was the best-attended. The rest of the 90-minute conversation consisted of Q+A and dialogue.

Wednesday's main event, however, was the Berry Street Address. The Berry Street is an annual lecture for UU ministers dating back to 1820 when William Ellery Channing delivered the first Berry Street. It is, reportedly, the oldest continuous lecture series in the Untied States. This year's essayist was Rev. Christine Robinson, minister of the UU Church in Albuquerque. (I visited the church she serves when I was in New Mexico in April.) She delivered a brilliant essay entitled "Imagineers of Soul." I will post a link here when it is available on line. The only other piece of business that day was a dinner that evening with all of the members of the UUMA Exec. at a restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale.

Thursday was just about as busy as Wednesday. My day began early at 7:00am with a breakfast for students preparing for the ministry. I was the MC of the breakfast and gave a short speech about the UU Minister's Association. Following the breakfast, I departed for the convention center where Forrest Church was giving a sermon on "A Ministry of Love in a Time of Fear." I was in charge of tech support for this event which consisted of operating a digital projector and power point. This also allowed me to sit right in front for this event that attracted a standing-room-only crowd. I am currently reading Church's last book, Love & Death, and will write more on it when I finish reading it.

Next, it was back to the hotel suite for lunch and meeting with the UUMA committees working on Continuing Education and a special minister's convocation in November, 2009. After meeting with them, it was back to the convention center where I attended, with SMUUCh's congregational President, a workshop sponsored by the UUA Board of Trustees on "Appreciative Inquiry." Unfortunately, I had to leave this workshop early in order to attend a reunion reception for the ministers featured on the Listening to Experience: 12 Visionary Ministers Discuss Growth DVD. Following the reception, I returned to the Convention Center to attend the Service of the Living Tradition that featured a magnificent sermon by Rev. Victoria Safford.

At 10:00 at night my day was not done yet. I had to write a brief piece for the Kansas City Star that was due the next day. Look forward to an article on spiritual book recommended by various ministers in the Kansas City area that should appear in the paper soon.

Friday was supposed to be a full day of meetings with the UUMA Exec. except I was only able to attend a portion of the day's meetings. From 9 to 11am we met with Chapter Leaders from various UUMA chapters across the country. After this, I departed for the day to prepare for my afternoon workshop presentation. Along with Rev. Harlan Limpert, I presented a GA Workshop based on the learning that came out of the Louisville Growth Summit and Listening to Experience DVD. You can watch streaming video of my presentation here. (Scroll down to Friday and event number 3042.) You can also read a recap here.

Following the workshop I was barraged with questions and was also invited to have coffee (well, bottled-water, actually) with one of the attendees of the workshop. It was a delightful meeting. I was very pleased with how the presentation had gone. Next, I went to dinner with the President of the church I serve.

Saturday we ended our UUMA Exec. meeting with 4 1/2 hours of back to back meetings. First we met with a team from the UUA Stewardship & Development office. Then we met with two representatives of a group for Retired UU Ministers and their spouses. We talked about how we could better support retired and retiring colleagues. Finally, we met with our two representatives on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and had a rich discussion with them. By this point in the week, I was worn out. I made my way over to the convention center and checked out the exhibition booths and bought a few books. I also attended the Candidate's forum for the two contenders for the UUA Presidency: Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman. I have to make a partisan comment and say that after being personally asked for an endorsement by both candidates and spending over 5 months weighing the pros and cons of both, I decided to endorse Laurel Hallman for UUA President. However, it was clear from the Candidate's Forum that this is going to be a real race. (I hope we will send a full slate of delegates to GA next year in Salt Lake City and make all our votes count!) Later that evening, I attended a reception for supporters of Laurel Hallman.

Sunday was the final day of General Assembly and, to tell you the truth, I had had enough of convention centers and hotel suites. I did spend about half an hour on Sunday morning meeting with our UUMA staff person, Janette Lallier, about my goals for my final year on the Exec. After that, it was time to hit the beach. (How can one spend a full week in Ft. Lauderdale and not make it to the beach?) I had worked hard all week and floating in the Atlantic Ocean was a great way to relax and unwind.

The final thing I might mention about the whole trip is that one of the small joys was that the fountain in front of our hotel had a family of very large iguanas that lived there. At any hour of the day or night you could walk out and observe these wonderful lizards doing things that lizards do. What a treat!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Week 5: "Everyday Sunshine" by Fishbone

When I consider the music that I enjoy listening to, it gives me pause when I realize that even though I am deeply committed to diversity and pluralism most of the music is created by white men. Of the 52 songs I will write essays about in this one year span, women only play a prominent role in 11 of the songs I’ve selected. People of color only play a prominent role in 2 out of the 52 songs. (A remarkable similarity to Unitarian Universalism in many ways.)

The band Fishbone first formed back in 1979. The story goes that the core members of the band were friends who were bussed to school from the underprivileged inner-city of Los Angeles to the white suburbs. Musically inclined, these friends developed a musical style that combined the soul, gospel, and nascent rap of their urban home-life with the punk, ska, and heavy metal they encountered at their predominantly white, sub-urban school.

The result: a band whose music is a fusion of funk, punk, ska, soul, metal, rock, and R&B. Their instrumentation consists of shared vocals, electric guitar, funky bass, keyboards, drums, saxophones, trumpets, and even a theremin! If this issn’t enough, the band members are also known for their eccentric, Mohawk-themed, hair-dos.

Fishbone’s breakthrough album came with the 1988 release of Truth and Soul. This record kicked off with a heavy metal cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” From this daring track the album went on to provide a tour through funk, soul, ska, and rock styles with lyrics addressing the afflictions of the ghetto. Truth and Soul also featured the unsurpassed funk number, “Bonin’ in the Boneyard.”

Fishbone is an amazing live band. They play long shows, often for more than two hours and sustain a level of energy that borders on mayhem. The majority of the band members perform shirtless. I witnessed this first-hand when I managed to get on the guest list for a Fishbone show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom in the spring of 1997. Yes, I did crowd surf. Yes, I did stage dive.

To get a sense of what their live shows are like, check out this clip of them playing a 15 minute version of “Everyday Sunshine” in Japan. (Make sure you check out the lead singer stage-diving at about the 9-minute mark, getting carried to the back of the venue, singing and mingling while standing on the sound and light board, and then diving back and getting passed back to the front stage.)

“Everyday Sunshine” was one of the two singles released off Fishbone’s most commercially successful album, 2001’s The Reality of My Surroundings. This diverse recording included several “skit” tracks, a common feature on rap albums. The record kept with the successful formula of blending several musical styles and the lyrics addressed social issues like racism and characters such as pimps and drug-dealers make frequent appearances in the subject matter of these the songs. Besides “Everyday Sunshine” this album is noteworthy for the track “Housework” which I have been known to put on repeat whenever I clean my home.

But “Everyday Sunshine” is the truly outstanding song on the album. The song begins with blaring brass, a funk bass groove, and plenty of keyboards. It starts out as a smooth soul number that slowly grows in intensity to have the feel of a call-and-response gospel tune. It is a song that gets your blood pumping and makes you feel good. It is far and away the most hopeful song from this fantastic album.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Week 4: "Declarations of Faith" by Zwan

Since I moved to Kansas City in 2003, I have listened to the album Mary Star of the Sea by Zwan more than any other album. The song “Declarations of Faith” is my favorite song from this consistently strong album.

Zwan was a short-lived “super group” that formed after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up. The band consisted of Pumpkins front-man Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Together they added two guitar players: Matt Sweeney of the band Chavez and David Pajo of the band Slint. They also added peripatetic bass-player Paz Lechantin who has played with a number of bands including A Perfect Circle and Queens of the Stone Age.

Billy Corgan, for all his giftedness as a visionary musician, is equally well-known for the volatility of his relationships with his band mates. The same personality issues (and alleged drug use) that led the Pumpkins to disband also led to Zwan’s premature demise after only one album.

Wikipedia describes Zwan’s style as “an intricate three-guitar attack.” This is true but doesn’t capture the fullness of their sound. In fact, after the release of Mary Star of the Sea, many who purchased the record asked if it was defective. The band responded by issuing a statement on their web-page that attempted to rectify these concerns,
“Recently, some concerns have come to light regarding the 'sound' of the album, and there seems to be confusion about whether or not there is a problem, which is understandable in the warm 'digital' age, so from my mouth to your ear, here's the deal: We set out to make the loudest rock and roll album that was humanly possible. No detail was too small, and by that I mean that everything, and I mean everything on the album is distorted by yours truly.

"So if our album is blowing up your speakers or making your dog cry, I can't say I'm sorry, but I do apologize for any worries this may have caused. 'Mary Star of the Sea' uses everything but the kitchen sink in the analog or digital domain to push the sound of Zwan past the blur into something that feels fresh and exciting, and most importantly, LOUD at any volume. So crank it up, and sit back and enjoy what it sounds like for us on stage in the overdriven glory."
This means that you can listen to their songs over and over again and each time notice new flourishes or bits of sound that you had never noticed before. The guitar-work is just so complex and layered that it is practically unsolvable.

Mary Star of the Sea is an album with a depth of quality songs. Virtually ever song is noteworthy, but especially commendable are the two singles, “Honestly” and “Lyric” as well as the tracks “Settle Down”, “Endless Summer”, and the 14-minute epic “Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea.”

Zwan approached their music with a similar sound to their prior incarnation as The Smashing Pumpkins, but with a wholly different attitude. Their songs are not only up-tempo, but also up-beat as compared to the melancholy and anger the Pumpkins exhibited. Zwan was optimistic and hopeful, even faithful. The first lines of the album declare, “Here comes my faith to carry me on.” While the song “Honestly” talks about truthfulness in relationships, Corgan opens the song by repeating the line, “I believe” three times with tremendous feeling. And, in “Declarations of Faith,” Corgan sings, “I declare myself, declare myself of faith.” The song ends with Corgan’s conclusion, “Maybe we were born to love each other.” What exactly is this faith that he has declared, anyways? While it resists definition, it is a “faith” based in hope and possibility.

In the song “Declarations of Faith” the song oscillates between straightforward verses and a chorus that swings. It features everything that is wonderful about Zwan’s music: an upbeat tempo, Jimmy Chamberlin’s frenetic drumming loaded with rolls and fills, complex guitar distortion especially in the upper-register, and the wall-of-sound guitars that are so loud that you feel them. You can see them play this song live here.

As a post-script, when I was a student at Harvard I had a friend named Katie. (I knew Katie because her older sister had been a classmate of mine at Reed College.) Katie not only lived in the same room that T.S. Eliot once lived in, but she also went to New York City on the weekends to go out on the town with her sister. Once she returned saying that she met a really cool guy named James – who played guitar in some band – at a club in New York and that she was planning to fly to Chicago to spend a weekend with him. James was James Iha, the original guitarist of the Smashing Pumpkins. She called him up and I got to speak on the phone with him.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sermon: "Father's Day in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-08)

[The little town of Holmes' Prairie is Kansas' version of Lake Wobegon. However, it also bears certain resemblances to the town of Bodacia, Texas as described UU minister Rev. Dennis Hamilton. Baptist preacher Solomon J. Samuels III is kin to Bodacia's Baptist preacher. And Sherman Lumley of Bodacia shares several traits in common with Frank Rodden. Frank Rodden, by the way, is named after my own father's childhood friend, although the two have nothing in common. Finally, Caitlin Lessing is based losely on a character developed by folk-singer David Wilcox in the song "Johnny's Camaro."]

It has been a while since we last heard from our friends in Holmes’ Prairie, Kansas. They send their warmest greetings, prayers, and curious thanks that we city folk would take an interest in the happenings in their small town.

If you’ve never been to Holmes’ Prairie, I will tell you where it is. On a map, Holmes’ Prairie is located to the left of Lawrence, geographically, but to the right of Liberal in all ways. You just drive West from Wichita and the directions involve turning at a water tower and taking a side road when you see the topiary pruned to resemble President Eisenhower. You’ll find the real map leading to Holmes’ Prairie written in your own heart, when you put aside all the clutter – all things busy and hectic, frenetic and frantic – and, fully renouncing all pretension, regard our human condition with the awe, bemusement, and whimsy that are its proper due.

I had meant to make the trek out to Holmes’ Prairie this week, except the weather worried me, so I had to settle for a phone call to Frank Rodden. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Frank, he is the town crank. He spends most of his days sitting in Annie’s Pie and Coffee shop on Main Street, taking notice of all the happenings in this town where nothing ever happens. Frank is the town gossip. He’s never met anyone whose business wasn’t his. But Frank’s language isn’t exactly suitable for a church crowd, so I’ve kind of put his words into my own.

Frank and I began by discussing the weather, which isn’t exactly novel. Frank’s the type of man who could spend hours talking about the weather and nothing else, and if you pay attention and listen carefully you can decode his life story, his mood, his fears, and even his opinion of the McCain / Obama presidential race just from how he talks about the humidity and the clouds. Speaking weather is like a second language to him, only when we talked he was really talking about the weather and he asked me to let you know that Holmes’ Prairie looked just about the same after the storms as before. And they are thankful that there were no injuries.

I am always partial to knowing about the happenings at the various houses of worship in Holmes’ Prairie, which I am sure you may not be as interested in, but religion is a big deal is Holmes’ Prairie. Over at St. John’s Catholic Church they have themselves a new Priest, Father Jesus Diaz. Father’s Day is always a difficult time spiritually for Father Diaz, or “Padre” as he’s frequently called. He knows he should be above his feelings of jealousy, above his own ego needs… but Father’s Day always manages to send him into a tizzy. Most of his parishioners call him Father more often than they can their own fathers, but on this day everybody seems to forget him. He wishes somebody would just say, “Feliz Dia de los Padres, Padre.”

Meanwhile, over at The First Baptist Church, Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III is having his own type of crisis. For those of you who don’t know, Pastor Samuels is a bit unusual for a Baptist preacher. Maybe it is the natural result of spending so many years in such a monotonous place as Holmes’ Prairie. Maybe it is the life of seeing human beings and knowing them when they are stripped of all pretenses. Maybe it is his ongoing bafflement with the puzzle we humans can be, the meanest lows of the lofty and the unexpected grace of the seemingly graceless. Or, maybe it is just the quiet of a spring day when the swooping of birds and the chirring of the insects combined with the cool breeze and long shadows cast by a distant sunset can place a person into an uncommon kind of contemplation. But whatever it is, Solomon Samuels has had his theology over-turned and up-rooted as much as a theology can be.

It has been a tiring year for Solomon, unusually so. Maybe it is grief that tugs at his heart, maybe it is that his age is catching up with him and he’s slipping a bit, but he is fatigued, and Father’s Day is just about the last sermon he wants to preach. He is looking forward to traveling to his annual prayer retreat and the rejuvenation that comes to him each year, just as, in Psalm 42, “The hart panteth after the water brooks.”

Searching for inspiration, Pastor Sol went to his file cabinet and began pulling sermons preached on Father’s Day. This added to his own bad attitude. All he could find were sermons on God’s Fathership, Lordship, and Dominion, sermons that exhorted his flock to be God’s obedient children. The exception was that sermon he preached about a decade ago addressing how the congregation should recite the Lord’s Prayer. This was all set off when a visitor had approached a member of the congregation several weeks earlier before the service and asked, “Excuse me, are you sinners, trespassers, or debtors here?” The congregant misunderstood the question, and trying to seem humble, replied, “All three.” This answer thoroughly shocked the visitor and when the Lord’s Prayer was spoken in the service he spoke in a proud and sure voice, declaring, “Forgive us our sins, debts, and trespasses and we forgive those who sin, debt, and trespass against us.” This sent off a firestorm of discussion and the congregation tried to decide whether they were more sinners or debtors or trespassers.

But, to make a long story short, Pastor Samuels’ theology had expanded beyond imagining “Our Father who art in heaven.” It was now, unlike the sermons he had given for years and years, no longer just a Father god, but a mother god and a child god and an animal god too, as well as a fluid force, shapeless and beyond all shaping, personal and transpersonal, always changing yet unchanged, and certainly known but still somehow unknowable. Solomon now believes that to try to nail God down is to try to kill God, and that, just like the Romans found out, God won’t stand for being nailed down, but will surprise us. And after his sermon this morning, most people in his congregation will probably just look askance and tell him that they hope he will enjoy his prayer retreat. He seems to need it.

Across town, at the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Fellowship, it has been a robust year. Yes, there is a Unitarian Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. The congregation grew by 11 percent this past year, meaning they took in one new member to give them an even 10 members. But they also managed to add two new committees for a total of 7. The main business of the church year was how they should abbreviate their name. Nobody was quite sure how to pronounce HPUF. Some were adamant about calling the Fellowship “HUF” while others insisted on “PUF.” They could have decided it just like the Supreme Court, 5 to 4, except for that darn new member who felt bad for the minority and decided to side with them because she liked rooting for the underdog. After a three hour congregational meeting they reached a compromise and decided to refer to themselves as “HUF-n-PUF” which was fair in that it pleased nobody.

The Father’s Day service at “Huf-n-Puf” is led each year by Mabel Pool, the founder of the Fellowship. The service is not so much a Father’s Day service as it is an anti-patriarchy day. The service consists of a long-winded and in-depth recitation of the sins of patriarchy throughout world history. The service concludes with a scrawny and shy man delivering a benediction that consists of an apology of behalf of all men.

And though I happen to be particularly interested in getting the gossip about what is happening in Holmes’ Prairie’s houses of worship, there is more to the world.

Caitlin Lessing, who you may remember from an earlier report from Holmes’ Prairie, has decided to stay in town for a while. For those who don’t know the story of Caitlin Lessing, let me tell you. Rail thin and tall and tomboyish, Caitlin had always been a little bit different, a bit of an odd match for a town like Holmes’ Prairie. She had left town at seventeen on a scholarship to a prestigious liberal arts college in the Midwest. Then she had joined the Peace Corps and went to live in Tanzania. Fate brought her back to Holmes’ Prairie when Caitlin’s father took ill with cancer and she returned to tend to him and her mother and the family stead. She took up teaching English at the regional school when a temporary vacancy opened up, which became somewhat of a scandal when she had high school students reading and discussing Sylvia Plath and D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. The school threatened to reassign her to teach the combined first through third grades, knowing that the subversive literature available to assign to elementary school children was a bit harder to obtain. Caitlin, summoning her untamable spirit, replied that she would enjoy working with more impressionable minds. They decided to keep her in the high school.

Caitlin’s father passed away when she was 24, less than a year after she had returned from Tanzania, but she decided to stay in town on account of her mother.

Now off for the summer break, Caitlin drops by the regional school and lets herself in. It is the school that she remembers for all twelve years and twelve grades she was there. Valedictorian. Taking on boys on the basketball courts and throwing bony elbows, boxing out, scraped knees and hands and chin. Worrying people by being a little too odd, a little too good, and a bit too much unlike the other girls.

Caitlin’s father used to take her as a child through the farm, down to the creek that passed through the corner of their property. He would tell Caitlin that the world extends beyond these horizons you see, that this water in the creek came from another town, and another town before that, and another town before that, and before that the rain, and before that a cloud, and before that a mystery. And this water, as idle as it seems right now, is bound for another town, and another town after that, then a river, then a sea, then a mystery. And in those moments, Caitlin knew her path would be like the creek, and she liked the creek best during springtime when it had a current to it.

Now, Caitlin walks through her old school, now the school where she teaches. She touches desks and chairs, recalls the faces of her classmates, her students. She thinks about their fathers. She wonders what they would write if she assigned them each an essay on their father. She wonders how many would write the truth. She imagines what these essays would say. “My father who comes home from work grimy and tired and silent.” “My father who left my mom and I when I was two.” “My father who put himself last and everyone else first.” “My father who taught me to ride a bike.” “My father who gets violent when he drinks.” “My father who takes us for ice cream at Dairy Queen after every little league game, even when I strike out three times.” “My father who never really knew what he wanted and still doesn’t.” “My father who told me I would amount to nothing.” “My father who told me I could be whatever I wanted.” “My father who cared for us after mom died.” “My father who said no too much, or so I thought, when I was too young to know any better.” And so many more, these essays she writes for the students she’s known.

She leaves and gets into her car and heads down the country road on Sunday, the fifteenth of June. She is driving home, driving home and writing her essay of her father who took her down to the creek.

The ritual was the same. They would cast their gaze up-river imagining what lay beyond. They would cast their gaze down river, imagining where the water flowed, how it touched flotsam and jetsam and the undersides of turtle bellies, the spouts of whales… how the water spumed into a mist that was carried on the breeze and touched some foreign shore, was dried by the sun and became mystery.

And then Caitlin would say, “But dad, what about the frogs? They stay right here and they like it.” And her father would suggest that they catch some. Sometimes this involved buckets and nets. Sometimes it involved wading in and trying to bare hand them, which resulted in much shrieking and laughing and splashing.

Caitlin pulls off the dusty gravel road on the way to the farm. She casts off her shoes as she walks down to the creek. She squats, still, peering into the stream. She catches her own reflection as her own salty tear ripples the water’s glassy surface. She laughs and shrieks and cries. She steps into the stream and feels the squishiness of mud between her toes, her hands, mud all over her pants and in her hair. She feels what it must feel like for those frogs that stay right there, and who come, somehow, somehow, to like it. Sun and mud and stream. She feels the reality of fathers gone and also, also still here.

That is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a town where nothing ever happens, except if you pause for a few moments and pay attention, and realize that there is more to life than you see.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Peace and War Sermon Series

Over the course of five weeks in May and June of 2008 I delivered a series of three sermons on issues of Peace and War.

The May 11th sermon considered the life of Julia Ward Howe, the famous Unitarian, anti-war activist, and founder of Mother's Day.

The May 25th sermon considered the life and poetry of William Stafford, a conscientious objector during WWII.

The June 8th sermon talked about the genocide in Darfur and what our response should be.

Sermon: "Our Response to the Genocide in Darfur" [Delivered 6-8-08]

This is the third sermon on issues of war and peace that I have delivered in the past month. On Mother’s Day, I preached about the life of the 19th Century Unitarian and anti-war activist Julia Ward Howe in conjunction with the "Julia’s Voice: Stand for Peace" event. Two weeks later, on Memorial Day, I preached about the life and poetry of William Stafford, a conscientious objector during World War II. Today, I conclude this sermon series with a sermon about the ongoing genocide in Western and Southern Sudan and the humanitarian crisis that has impacted all of the countries in the horn of Africa. What I will talk about is graphic and disturbing. It will also challenge our own sense of ethics, moral responsibility, and conscience.

However, the way I want to introduce the subject is indirectly. With a topic as dark as genocide the temptation is to tune out after a certain amount of information is presented, so it is helpful to suggest a lens through which to view it. I want to begin by talking about our own country and our own country’s history of genocide against indigenous people. Analogies aren’t perfect, but they help for us to place something foreign in a context we might better understand.

The Shoshone Indians are a small Native American tribe that is widely dispersed in the American West. Their homeland ranged from present day Idaho to Nevada and even into parts of Southern California. Sacajawea, who helped guide Lewis & Clark’s expedition across the continent, was a Shoshone Indian. In 1863, the Shoshone signed the Ruby Valley treaty which granted the Shoshone a large segment of Nevada. This is not exactly prime real-estate. One hundred years later, the United States government began to try various tactics to take the land back. Various government bureaucracies, including the IRS, the bureau of land management, and even the US military have attempted to gain control over the land. The Western Shoshone primarily make their living as ranchers, and to ranch in this kind of desolate land you need lots and lots of land.

When attempts to buy the land failed, the government claimed the Shoshone were illegally grazing on government lands and sued them for millions of dollars including compounded interest. These are poor people, small time ranchers living subsistence life-styles. From time to time, the bureau of land management has claimed that the Shoshone’s ranching is hurting the environment and come in with armed law enforcement agents and take the Shoshone’s horses and cattle. The United States military has even become involved, threatening to test powerful bombs – weapons of mass destruction – on Shoshone holy sites. In 2006, the Pentagon planned to test a new megabomb, nick-named “Divine Strake” on Shoshone land. This bomb is 5-times more powerful than any non-nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal.

So, why has the US government been so fixated on this land for the past several decades? The simple answer is greed. Although the land was deemed pretty much worthless when the treaty of Ruby Valley was signed almost 150 years ago, what they didn’t know at the time was that the treaty ceded one of the world’s largest gold deposits to the Western Shoshone. Follow the money. The gold industry sees profit and their lobbyists influence legislators to try to open up the land for mining. And not just any mining. The gold in the land is in flakes, not nuggets. To extract the gold would require the leveling of mountains, strip-mining and leeching the gold of the land with environmentally degrading chemicals – which makes the claim that the Shoshone are damaging the environment by grazing incredibly suspect. In 2006 the Shoshone appealed to the United Nations to intervene and the UN issued a decision against the US government, the first decision of this kind in history. For more information, check out the Western Shoshone Defense Project or check out the documentary film “American Outrage.”

In the 19th century, the United States would have simply removed the tribe by force, used biological weapons against them, or perhaps just slaughtered them. Now, our Indian removal policies are just more civilized.

I ask you to hold this story in mind as I talk about the history of the Sudan. Geographically, the Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. It gained independence in 1956, but, like many countries in colonial Africa, the geo-political boundaries were problematic. The Sudan included a large Muslim population in the North, several Nubian tribes, as well as many other tribes. In fact, there are nearly 600 different tribal groups who speak approximately 400 language dialects. The history of the area goes back over 10,000 years to the Kush dynasty. The area was conquered first by Christians and then by Muslims.

From 1983 to 2003, Sudan was stricken by a second civil war that pitted Arabs in the North against non-Arabs in the South and West. The war claimed the lives of more than two million people. The Sudanese government employed mercenary militia forces to devastate villages in Sudan. These mercenaries rode into towns on horse-back. These Janjaweed militias systematically terrorized these villages, murdering indiscriminately, raping women, and taking boys as prisoners to be put to slave labor. The militias also stole whatever they could take, burned the rest, scorched and salted the earth and dropped corpses down wells. The goal was total destruction.

Out of this civil war we are perhaps most familiar with the Sudanese Lost Boys. The Lost Boys either escaped the militias or were sent away by their elders before the militias arrived. These groups of boys walked hundreds of miles and crossed over to Ethiopia and Kenya. The walk took many lives, and unimaginably, the Sudanese Air-Force strafed these packs of displaced boys with bombs and gunfire. Some 27,000 survived and in the late nineties, as many as 4,000 lost boys were brought to the United States. The largest group of Sudanese Lost Boys actually wound up in Omaha, believe it or not.

In 2003, the civil war ended, but the government of Sudan began the same practice in the Darfur region in Western Sudan. Janjaweed militias continue to perpetrate unspeakable acts of violence and terror against these villages. The Sudanese government supports these militias with arms and funding. Estimates are that at least 400,000 thousand have died. Another 3.5 million from the Darfur region are displaced, living and dying in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Cross-border attacks against the refugees continue. It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

Sudan is ruled by a fundamentalist Muslim regime. It is regarded as the country with the worst human rights record in the world. This includes not only the ongoing genocide in Darfur, but also the widespread practice of slavery, human trafficking, and supporting terrorist organizations. In 1998, President Clinton authorized cruise missile attacks against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a suspected weapons factory in Sudan. (Osama bin Laden is widely believed to have lived for a time in Sudan.) These attacks were in retaliation for embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

There is one more thing you should know in terms of history and background. One should ask why the Sudanese government is so interested in the Darfur region? Well, for much the same reason that the United States government is interested in barren grazing lands in Nevada. In the case of Sudan, it isn’t gold but rather oil. And there are plenty of countries that will deal with a genocidal, oppressive regime in order to get oil. China has been selling arms to The Sudan for over a decade in exchange for allowing Chinese oil companies access to oil in Sudan. In fact, China has also made oil deals with countries like Iran, Burma, and Venezuela.

The impetus to preach on the issue of Sudan, Darfur, and the Lost Boys came from this congregation’s Fiction Book Group. This Spring they read a book by Dave Eggers, entitled What is the What. What is the What is written as an autobiography of a Sudanese Lost Boy named Valentino Achak Deng. Deng survived a militia raid against his village, walked hundreds of miles across the South of Sudan and just barely survived dehydration and starvation, lion attacks and bombing from Sudanese war planes. Deng lived in refugee camps first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya and came to the United States after September 11th.

I read the book when it first came out, in February of 2007. It was probably the most affecting book I’ve ever read. There were probably about a dozen moments while reading What is the What when I had to set the book down and take a walk around the block to staunch the flow of tears and recompose myself.

The littlest things could set this off. For example, when a large group of Lost Boys came to Atlanta, the Atlanta Hawks decided to give the group complimentary tickets to a basketball game. The blaring music and laser lights were discombobulating and frightening. The scantily clad cheerleaders distressed these young men who had grown up with very different standards of modesty. And, when a guy came out with a T-Shirt cannon (you know those contraptions that launch T-shirts into the crowd) it caused many of the young men to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reactions.

The life of the Lost Boys in the United States has been complicated. Psychologically, many of them struggle with the extraordinary trauma of their ordeal, and the grief of not knowing what became of their entire family – parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins – but fearing the worst. While groups in the United States, including church groups, have provided them with outstanding care, they have also struggled to adapt. The most common job for Sudanese refugees is slaughterhouse work. This is followed by working the front desks at hotels and gyms. In one passage, the protagonist of What is the What is denied admission into college because, according to the admissions director, it wouldn’t look right to have a tall black man in his mid-twenties mixing with little white girls in their teens.

I want to offer some thoughts about what our response could possibly be to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. What can any of us do to impact genocide half a world away? One thing that many of us can do today is to look at our retirement investments, stock market investments, or 401(k) if we have these. Do research. Are international funds a part of your investments? If so, do those international funds include stocks from Chinese oil companies like Sinopec? Perhaps, you should consider divesting from those funds that hold stocks in Chinese Oil companies. Or, perhaps you can go one step further. If you work for a company, perhaps you can organize to get your company to stop offering funds that contain holdings in Chinese Oil. Perhaps you can leverage this to get companies like Fidelity to create funds that don’t hold stock in Chinese Oil Companies. How comfortable are you living with knowledge that you own stock in corporations that are funding and encouraging genocide in Darfur? Who else can you apply pressure to? If you are a college graduate you could urge your alma mater to make sure their endowment does not own stock in Chinese oil. If you are interested in examining your investments, this web-site is a great tool to find out how socially responsible your investments are.

[One of the most interesting comments I received between services was from a woman in the congregation who warned me against making the Chinese the “new red scare.” She reminded me that it has been the United States’ desire for cheap plastic goods that has driven China’s widespread industrialization. It is easy to blame China without realizing how much of their development can be attributed to our patterns of consumption.]

Divestment is somewhat controversial. The last time this came up in a significant way was when companies and universities were urged to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime. Divestment is controversial because once you divest you preclude yourself from engaging in shareholder activism. For those of you unfamiliar with this practice, let me give you an example: Publicly traded companies need to have shareholder meetings. I have a pension through the UUA that is managed by Fidelity. One of the companies the pension holds stock in is Verizon. It was discovered that Verizon, on top of the political contributions that virtually all companies make, was giving large sums of money to various Creationist institutes and anti-gay groups, as well as to Tom DeLay’s legal defense fund. A few years ago I got to attend the Verizon shareholder meeting and move a proposal that Verizon publicly disclose their political giving. The CEO took me on and we engaged in a war of words on the floor of a giant hotel ballroom. He refused to disclose because he said it was a privileged business decision. I asked him to explain the business rationale for giving to groups that actively oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools. My motion didn’t carry, but there is nothing quite like publicly shaming someone who makes in excess of $20,000,000 per year.

One thing is for certain, and that is that I am not going to get invited to the shareholder meeting of a Chinese oil company. And, it will probably take far more than economic pressure to protect the millions of refugees from Darfur. This leads us to the question of military intervention for humanitarian purposes.

The UU response to such a question has been mixed. Unitarian Universalist President Bill Sinkford was arrested in 2004 for trespassing at the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. while protesting the genocide in Darfur. Actor Danny Glover protested at the same demonstration. The late Tom Lantos, the only holocaust survivor to serve in the United States congress, was arrested while protesting at the Sudanese embassy in 2006 along with a handful of his colleagues in congress.

And, while there are some Unitarian Universalists who unequivocally renounce the use of all military force, there are also a number of Unitarian Universalists who believe that our faith requires us to encourage our government to pursue the multilateral or even unilateral use of force when it is a last resort and done for humanitarian purposes. In the case of Sudan, that might mean enforcing a no-fly zone over civilian populations that have been targeted by the Sudanese Air Force. It also might mean dispatching soldiers and security personnel to bolster the small numbers of ill-equipped African guardsmen who have been ineffective about protecting refugees from Darfur.

During the 90’s, then UUA President John Buehrens spoke approvingly of President Clinton’s decision to bomb Serbia in order to stop the genocide in Kosovo. Following the Holocaust, Jewish leaders coined the phrase “Never Again” and have been active in pushing for the world’s powers to intervene in cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. And yet, “again” has happened and continues to happen: in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, arguably in Myanmar, and certainly in The Sudan.

This morning I’ve asked us to wrestle with tough questions. I’ve asked us to examine our own history of genocide. I’ve asked us to probe the depths of our own conscience and ask what we should do and what we should ask others to do for the people of Darfur.

I hope this trilogy of sermons on peace and war has stirred your conscience. I hope it might move you to action. I want to close with a passage from What Is The What, where the voice of Valentino Achak Deng speaks and utters these words,
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has met me during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Week 3: "Radiation Vibe" by Fountains of Wayne

I will come right out and make a bold statement: If I had to pick just one song to play as driving music, I would choose “Radiation Vibe” by the power-pop band Fountains of Wayne. And I wouldn’t even hesitate.

For the first two songs that I have written about in my 52 Songs in 52 Weeks feature, I followed the formula of providing a short biography and discography of the artist before launching into a discussion of the song of the week. Over the next 49 weeks, I will feature two more songs by Fountains of Wayne, so I will skip that introduction for now.

However, I will say that the songs I’ve picked for the 52 Songs project do follow (roughly) the general calendar year. I will write about FoW’s cover version of the song “These Days” in November; it is a perfect song for late autumn. Appropriately, I will write about their “Valley Winter Song” in mid-January. During the month of August I will take a trip to California, so I’ve selected several songs about California for that month. In late February / early March I will write about two songs that came from movies that won Oscars last year.

This weekend I deliver my final sermon on the “church year.” Even though I will be back to preach a sermon in mid-July, I will be away from church the next three Sundays. “Radiation Vibe” is a song that encompasses that feeling of hitting the road in the summertime.

“Vibe” is the first track off Fountain of Wayne’s first album, which was self-titled and released in 1996. At three minutes and forty seconds in length, it is a gem of pop-perfection from a band that knows how to write catchy pop songs. (Adam Schlesinger, the co-writer of most of FoW’s songs also wrote the title-track for That Thing You Do, a movie about a one hit wonder pop band.)

"Raditation Vibe" leads off with a nice groove (Dan-dun-Dan dik-a dik-a Dan-dun) that repeats through the entire song. The song follows a basic verse – chorus – verse – chorus – solo – chorus form. The lyrics are actually fairly inane, but the chorus is as catchy as can be. While the verses are fairly soft, the chorus, which is introduced by a blast of guitar distortion, pumps up your mood. The lyrics to the chorus are also nothing special. “And now it’s time to say / what I forgot to say / baby, baby, baby / c’mon what’s wrong? / It’s a radiation vibe I’m grooving on / and don’t it make you want to get some sun? / Shine on, shine on, shine, on.” But I guarantee you will be humming the tune for the rest of the day.

The other thing to point out about the song is that the solo (if it can truly be called that) is not the high point of the song. While the chorus, to employ a driving metaphor, makes you feel like you are peeling out of a parking lot, the solo makes you feel like you’ve downshifted in order to cruise the strip. The solo sets up the reprise of the joy-riding chorus with which the song concludes. Watch the music video of Radiation Vibe and see if you agree with me.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear FoW live in concert twice. The first time was in 1999 in Portland, Oregon. The second time was in Kansas City in 2003. It should be noted that the “solo” serves a very different function in their live performances. Immediately following the chorus, the band members quickly conference and then launch into a medley of classic rock hits (you can see them do it in this piece of amateur concert footage.) FoW is a fantastic live-band and this gimmick is joyful, funny, captivating, and surprising. When they finally return to the chorus it is as if they’ve taken you on wild journey and then returned you to the right place.

While “Radiation Vibe” rises to a superb level of catchy songwriting, the entire album on which it is featured is strong. From start to finish every song is solid. “Sink to the Bottom” and “Barbara H.” each approach the catchiness of “Vibe.” “Survival Car” is the most up-tempo track on the album and “I’ve Got A Flair” has the feel of a rock anthem that would fit seamlessly into just about any Weezer album. Finally, “Leave the Biker” is laugh-out-loud funny. Five years later, Bowling for Soup released a thematically identical track entitled, “Girl All the Bad Guys Want.” While the BfS song is better, in my opinion, “Leave the Biker” is spectacular in its own right.

And, if I haven’t poured enough accolades on this album as it is, I will add just one more note of praise. The cover art is hilariously perfect. What a picture!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

State of the Blog

Dear Readers,

Once or twice a year I like to make a general post addressed to my readership. The RevThom blog was created in September 2005 as a way of communicating to the members of the church I serve, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park. The blog's primary purpose was to archive my sermons and provide a forum for other forms of communication.

This year I have added some additional features:
1) A booklist with commentary on what I have been reading.
2) The Month of Gratitude spiritual practice challenge in February.
3) The Gossip Column (whose name is intentionally mis-leading) that provides a forum for addressing the congregation I serve in ways that wouldn't normally work in a sermon.
4) The brand new 52 Songs in 52 Weeks feature of musical essays.

So, dear reader, I would love to hear back from you. How often do you read the blog? Have you ever quoted me in a sermon, blog post, term paper, etc? What do you enjoy most? What would you like to see me add? I'd love it if you were to introduce yourself, especially if I don't know you. You can email me at: minister [at]

Two disclaimers: In the past I have received feedback that it is hard to read long sermons in the blog format. This is true. If this is the case for you, I would recommend copying the text and posting it into the word processing document you use and then printing it. Also, while I would love to add audio and video to the blog, I'm pretty technologically slow. If you have had success with this in the blogspot format, please send me a note and let me know. (Plus, there are only so many hours in the day.)

But mostly, I would love to hear from people who read the blog. If you live in Kansas City, drop by the church sometime. If you live outside of Kansas City, send me a note and say "Hello." Also, if you are especially grateful that this blog exists, you are welcome to send a donation to the church I serve:

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church
7725 W. 87th Street
Overland Park, Kansas

Thank for reading and I look forward to hearing from you!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Week 2: "Love/Hate" by Liz Phair

[This is the second essay in my 52 Songs in 52 Weeks blog feature. I am indebted to Jim DeRogatis' review of Exile in Guyville and to wikipedia's entry on Liz Phair for some of the information contained within.]

In order to understand why I think “Love/Hate,” (the 10th track on Liz Phair’s 4th album) is a remarkable song you have to know something about Phair’s career trajectory. After receiving an undergraduate degree from Oberlin, a prestigious liberal arts college in the Midwest, Phair relocated to Chicago in her early 20’s. As a college student, Phair was interested in art and art history but took up songwriting "on a lark."

Phair began her career as a musician in the early 1990’s and burst onto the scene in 1993 with her debut album Exile in Guyville which was released by Matador Records. With 18 tracks, Exile was bold and brash. In interviews Phair claimed that it was a “song by song” response to The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. There is little consensus as to the veracity of this statement. An alternative explanation of the origin of the album title is that the title referred to the male-dominated Chicago music scene that featured groups like Urge Overkill, Material Issue, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Exile was shocking for its explicit and aggressive sexuality and its confident third-wave feminism. It garnered effusive praise from rock critics and Rolling Stone named it as one of the greatest 500 albums of all time. More importantly, Phair became the first woman solo-artist to achieve commercial and critical success in the alternative-rock genre.

Phair’s sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, became her greatest commercial success based largely on the catchiness of the album’s first single, “Supernova.” Click here to see Phair performing “Supernova” on the David Letterman show. Phair’s second album continued with her successful formula of aggressive, in-your-face sexuality and hyper-confidence.

Her third album, whitecholocatespaceegg, was a departure from her earlier efforts. The album was more pop than rock and the album’s first single, “Polyester Bride,” earned airplay on pop and adult-contemporary radio stations instead of alternative rock stations. Critics spoke of her having grown-up (if they spoke of her at all.)

This brings us to her fourth album, a self-titled release, which in itself is somewhat telling. Reportedly, Phair toyed with naming the album /, that is the symbol for a slash. The cover art for the album features Phair holding her guitar in a suggestive angled position that imitates a slash. As a whole, the album is varied. On one hand, the album is highly produced. For a number of the songs she collaborated with a song-writing team known as The Matrix who also wrote radio-friendly tunes for pop-sensations like Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Shakira, and Hillary Duff. At the same time, she re-claims her strong sense of sexuality, albeit in a more playful way than in early recordings.

This album is a statement of identity, rejecting an “either-or” identity in favor of one that is “both-and.” Just listen to the refrain from the chorus on the first song on the album. She sings, “I am extraordinary. I am just your ordinary, average, every-day sane/psycho super-Goddess.” Talk about resisting labels.

It is the tenth song on the album where Phair takes up this question of identity head-on. And, it is a good song. With a steady beat, rock guitars, and a layered synthesizer, it succeeds in being a catchy, up-beat song. The song’s lyrics begin biographically. “I was a mess in my open-eyed youth / I grew up thinking / what’s good for one oppresses the other.” The second verse corrects this dualistic thinking. “It’s a sister and brother, mother and daughter, father/son, husband/wife thing. It’s drugs, it’s hunger, it’s race, sex, and government. Any way you look at it you’re part of it, you know it.”

The chorus of “Love/Hate” provides a balance to her declared refusal to be boxed in. The chorus chants, “It’s a war / with the whole wide world / It’s a war / with the boys and girls / It’s a war / And nothing’s gonna change / And nothing’s gonna change.” Here, the image of war is highly metaphorical. The war is the struggle to claim one’s own identity amidst a world that wants to categorize you, that refuses to let you straddle both sides of the “slash” (as Phair does on the album cover.) The song’s final lyrics expand upon the chorus as Phair sings, “It’s a war / all the give and take / It’s a war / all the love and hate / It’s a war / and nothing’s gonna change.” She repeats this last line an additional nine times.

I think it would be wrong to conclude that strong insistence that "nothing is going to change" is pessimistic or fatalistic. She is realistic in the world’s tendency to want to categorize and define. But, I see these words as hopeful. If nothing is going to change, then she will not give in to this pressure either. In that sense, she has claimed a stance that is defiant. She refuses to be exiled in guyville. While her fourth album lacked the critical acclaim of her first, “Love/Hate” stands out as her clearest manifesto. In addition, the song is a whole lot of fun. The song begins with the beep of guitars getting ready to rock-out and an old-fashioned "1-2-3-4” count. Then the guitars kick it off with enthusiasm. The high-pitched keyboards help to fill out the song. And, at the end the song dies out only to be revived for a reprise of the final line of the chorus. It is her way of saying, “I’m not done yet.”

[I have been fortunate to hear Liz Phair twice in concert: the first time in Portland in 1998; the second time in Kansas City in 2003. Other Liz Phair songs that I recommend include: "Never Said" and "Strange Loop" off Exile in Guyville, "Supernova" and "May Queen" off Whip-Smart, "Perfect World" off whitechocolatespaceegg; and "Good Love Never Dies" off her self-titled album.]

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sermon: "You say, 'UU'; They ask, 'What?'" (Delivered 6-1-08)

[I am especially grateful to the four members of the class who had speaking roles in the worship service.]

Opening Words
We have all had it had it happen to us, in some form or another. A distant relative asks you where you go to church. The person sitting beside you on the airplane tries to proselytize and win your soul for Christ. A co-worker asks you about your religion.

“I am a Unitarian Universalist,” you say. And you’ve passed the first test which is to actually get the name of your religion correct. And they, “A Uni- what?” Or, “Yes, I’ve heard of Unity?” And you sound out the name of your chosen faith for them, all ten syllables.

And then they ask, “What is that? Is it Christian? Is it New Age? Is it a cult? Do you believe in Jesus? (A loaded question!) Do you believe in the Bible? (Another loaded question.)

Does any of this resonate? This morning we will be exploring ways to help us better articulate our own religious identity. I’ll also explain why I think it important for us to be able to do this well, and effectively, and passionately.

You say, “UU.” They say, “What?” Now it is your turn, your turn… and, in that moment, what you say matters.

Articulating Your Faith
At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1999 – or was it the year before or the year after? – I met with twenty other UU twenty-somethings in a windowless convention center room with irritating fluorescent lighting to be among the first to test-drive the first few sessions of a new curriculum targeted at Generation X Unitarian Universalists written by Jaco ten Hove and Barbara Wells entitled “Articulating Your Faith.” Over the years, the curriculum was significantly redesigned and has become a favorite curriculum offered at UU churches across the country. This course spoke to a need, the need to have a good answer to a question, “What do you say when somebody asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe?” All this sounds really simple, but I think just about any of us can recall a time when we’ve either been less than articulate in speaking about our faith or a time when we’ve actively avoided the topic all together. “Hey, look over there is that Elvis?” “Nice weather we’re having today.” “How about them Cubs?”

This Spring, under the expert facilitation of a member of our church, a group met to take the Articulating Your Faith class. Together they bonded. They went deep. They grew and transformed and they had the sense that in their class they were experiencing something special. Members new and old, young and not as young gained a greater understanding of the UU tradition, but also greater comfort and confidence in speaking about it. They decided that the only bad part of their experience was that they wished everyone could have a taste of what they learned together. So, they brought me in and asked if I would be willing to speak about their experience in a sermon. I am always delighted when our members have an experience that is deepening and profound so it was a joy to honor their request.

I need to begin this sermon with a confession. It is something that I am not very proud of. In fact, it is rather embarrassing. To this day I keep my Harvard Divinity School student ID in my wallet. I keep it there for a reason. I try to restrain myself – I really do – and, in most cases I am successful about restraining myself. But, very rarely, about twice in my life, I have got in a religious discussion with somebody that has turned so ugly, so abrasive, and so confrontational, so in-your-face, that I have needed to card the person. By carding the person I mean this: I pull out my Harvard ID card and say, “I have a masters-level degree in religion from Harvard, where did you learn your Bible?”

And then, the gloves come off. Words roll off my tongue. I offer a discourse on hermeneutics of suspicion, eschatology, soteriology, and the distinctions between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism. I mention things like two-source theory, canon formation, and Gnosticism. I talk about the meaning of words in Coptic. I rehash the theological debates between Arius and Athanasius. I talk about Arminianism and Socinianism. I recite points made within Mark Noll’s history of the evangelical movement. I delve into post-modern theory, feminist theory, queer theory, liberation theology, process theology, and transcendentalism. “How do you like them apples?”

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a habitual practice or anything. Just under extenuating circumstances. In fact, I’ve only had to card somebody twice in my life. I will also confess something else: even with seven years of rigorous academic training in the field of religion, I still don’t always find it easy to articulate my faith.

The bad news is that I can’t teach you how to do it in the next fifteen minutes although I hope we will offer the course on “Articulating Your Faith” again next year and that many of you will participate. But I can offer some pointers, as well as a conceptual framework for thinking about how you might want to articulate your faith.

There are many factors that conspire against us being good at articulating our faith. Let me list a few of those factors:

One factor is that we are a faith tradition that is based in respect and views diversity as a good thing. We tend to react negatively to people who go around seeking converts and proselytizing. Many of us are more comfortable as listeners. As it has been put, “We don’t seek out conversions; we seek out conversations.” But, conversations are a two way street and to engage fully and fairly, we need to be able to speak effectively about our own tradition.

A second factor is that we are not theologically uniform. Our religious community includes people with diverse beliefs and practices. Oftentimes this means having to decide whether to speak for yourself or speak for others. Someone asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe and there simply isn’t a simple answer to that question. “Well some of us believe this, and others of us believe that.” Which, while true, does make us sound a bit wishy-washy.

A third factor is that many of us have a strong sense of privacy. Oftentimes our privacy is especially strong when it comes to our personal beliefs and spiritual practices. In this church you are not expected to have to defend what you believe or what you practice; it is your business. And part of my role (and your role) is for us to respect each other regardless of whether you have a strong belief in a personal God or whether you are an atheist, whether you, outside of the worship we engage in together on Sunday morning, have a spiritual practice of communing with nature, or Buddhist meditation, or prayer, or chanting, or what have you.

While there are many factors that make us less effective about speaking about Unitarian Universalism, allow me to name just one more. We are a religious minority. There aren’t very many Unitarian Univeralists. There are less than 200,000 of us in the United States. Just one half of one tenth of one percent of the residents of Johnson County is UU. The overwhelming majority of the general population is oblivious to the fact of our existence. What this means is that despite the fact that our tradition goes back over two-hundred years, despite the fact that UUs were instrumental in the founding of our nation, despite the fact that so many leading authors, scholars, scientists, and social justice heroes have been UUs, many of us tend to take on a minority complex. We internalize our own minority status. As a result, we create jokes about ourselves that reinforce this sense of inferiority.

I received an email from my cousin – a UU in Knoxville, Tennessee – that exemplifies this dynamic. Let me read it in part:
“As we welcome our newest members and visitors, it is only fair to let them know what we Unitarian Universalists are like and what we expect.
* We believe in tolerance and cannot stand intolerant people.
* We are more non-competitive than other groups.
* We believe in equality; everyone is as good as the next person and a
whole lot better.
* Every Unitarian is a feminist, so he has to watch his language.
* We are prompt about being late to meetings.
* Dogmatism is absolutely forbidden and freedom of belief is rigidly enforced.
To this wonderful religion we joyfully welcome you.”
Then of course there is the joke about how if you don’t like organized religion you will love us because we are a disorganized religion.

*** SIGH *** That is surely why I went into the ministry… to commit my life to a fake pseudo-religion. And, I’m sure that is why you come here… not to have your life transformed. Not to work on your own life, not to heal your grief, not to grow in love and gratitude, and certainly not to make a difference in a world that needs our prophetic vision. It is all a big joke, right?
*** Sigh ***

When it comes to articulating your faith, a lot depends on who you are talking with. Are you talking with a dogmatic, evangelical Christian who thinks you belong to a new age cult? Are you talking with an open-minded person of faith such as a main-line Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Taoist, who is interested in learning about Unitarian Universalism? Are you talking with a person who holds a strong dislike of all things religious? Or, perhaps, you are talking with somebody who is seeking out a religious community, who has tried and tried and tried to be a faithful Catholic or a faithful Methodist and it just is not working out… and they are wondering if there is a church out there where they can be who they really are.

How you will talk to each of these people will be different. How many of you have found yourself having an uncomfortable conversation about religion with an evangelical Christian? Before I offer you some tips, let me ask you a question: who is more individualistic, us or them? How many of you would say that we UUs are more individualistic? How many would say the opposite? My answer here may surprise you. I think we often refer to our diversity as individualism. We are diverse in our beliefs… heterodoxy as opposed to orthodoxy. We are diverse in our practices… heteropraxy as opposed to orthopraxy. We are also inclusive: we have humanists, pagans, Jews, Buddhists, and Christians in our midst. We also have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. We’re not perfect in our inclusiveness, but we’re pretty darn good. Also, we affirm individual rights. We have a strong belief in the rights of conscience and in constitutionally granted freedoms. This is all summed up in the famous words of Francis David: “We need not think alike, to love alike.”

Our stereotypical image of a fundamentalist Christian is pretty much a polar opposite of all of this – they would believe there is only one right way to believe and one right way to pray; they would openly exclude all but straight people; they despise many of the freedoms at the core of a liberal constitutional democracy. But evangelicals are also highly individualistic, perhaps more than Unitarian Universalists. They are highly individualistic in their concept of salvation. How does one get saved in a conservative evangelical church? Answer: You have to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At the root, that is the only thing that matters – whether you as an individual have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And, on this point, we are polar opposites. Our idea of salvation usually has to do with a notion of the Kingdom of God, or, as we would call it, beloved community. Salvation for us is this worldly. It is about creating a world that is peaceful, fair, and free. This is the very opposite of individualism.

Of course, conversations with hardcore evangelicals may prove frustrating, so allow me to address another group: those in our society who are profoundly anti-religious. If you are anything like me, you get along very well with these people until the subject becomes the church you go to. Then you become a bit defensive. To a strongly anti-religious person, you migh paraphrase John Buehrens and them to, “Tell me about the church you can’t stand. I can’t stand that type of church either.” Strongly anti-religious people have existed for well over two-hundred years. In 1799, the great Enlightenment philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher published essays on religion dedicated to religion’s “cultured despisers.” In these essays he said things like,
“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self.”
More recently, Chris Hedges has published a book entitled, “I don’t believe in Atheists” which takes to task the Dawkins’, Dennett’s, and Sam Harris’ of the world for having a view of religion that is far too narrow.

So, how do you talk about your faith? These are my tips:

First, make is personal. Abstract discussion is not nearly as effective as personal testimony. Talk about what being a Unitarian Universalist has meant to your life. Has it held you to a higher standard? Has it made you a better person than you actually wanted to be? Has it demanded that you be more open-minded? Has it challenged you to service and sacrifice? Has it expanded your heart, your compassion? Has it led you to courageous works and good deeds?

Second, claim the center. Too often we self-marginalize. In reality, our principles are not radical statements. They are very centrist. To disagree with them, I would say, is to take a stance outside of the mainstream, and even to display some level of deviance. Claim the center.

Third, remember the ninth commandment. Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness. What I have found is that Unitarian Universalists are some of the most honest people I have ever met. (This observation was made to me by another minister.) Why this honesty? Well, why would anyone join a UU church? Not out of family pressure. Not for reasons of society or to make business contacts. Not to be like their neighbors. Not out of guilt. Rather, it takes a kind of personal honesty to belong to our kind of church. Religion, for us, begins with the ability to be truly honest about who we are and what it is that we actually believe. That is why you are here. You cannot tell a lie.

How did the class do? Very well. They emerged a group of people who were very open and eager to articulate their faith. Let’s see how they did.

One class member talked about how the binding points of Unitarian Universalism are things like community, love, service, and social justice as opposed to specific beliefs about a deity or the afterlife.

Another spoke of the evolving nature of religion. How it poses new possibilities as life poses new problems. She wrote, “I believe that God exists in the good works of humans and in the beauty of the world around us. I believe that each moment is precious and my purpose—and hardest challenge—in life is to make the most of the time I’ve been given.”

A third wrote that Unitarian Universalism provides her with a spiritual home while she seeks truth. A fourth added that she uses words by Thomas Jefferson to help explain what it means to be a UU. Jefferson said, “It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.”

Go forth and practice. Speak your truth boldly. Fear not.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Week One: "Road to Joy" by Bright Eyes

In the Fall of 2004, musical acts such as Bruce Springsteen, REM, The Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne were a part of a highly partisan concert series held in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. (I’ll give you two guesses about which Presidential candidate they were supporting and the first guess doesn’t count.)

During the concert series, a relatively obscure band called Bright Eyes opened four shows for REM and Bruce Springsteen. Reportedly, a generational schism was evident at many of these shows. Young Bright Eyes fans were known to beg their parents to leave after Bright Eyes finished their opening set. They didn’t care to hear REM, who appealed to a Generation X demographic or Springsteen, who appealed to Baby Boomers.

The band Bright Eyes, based in Omaha, Nebraska, was formed in 1995 and fronted by then 15 year-old Conor Oberst. Oberst, born in 1980, was no newcomer to the music industry. At age 12 people were comparing his song-writing to Bob Dylan’s. At age 13 he released his first album and founded his own record company, Saddle Creek Records, which would go on to put out albums by bands like Rilo Kiley and The Faint. (From ’93-’96 he released three full length albums as Conor Oberst.) Bright Eyes has been releasing albums at a prolific rate since their debut album in 1998. In the past decade they’ve released seven full length albums as well as an album of B-sides, a live album, and a Christmas album.

“Road to Joy” is from the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a folk-rock styled album that was released simultaneously in January, 2005 with a second, harder Bright Eyes album, Digital Ash in A Digital Urn, that was influenced by electronica. However, the version of “Road to Joy” I am going to describe is from their November, 2005 live album, Motion Sickness.

"Road to Joy" kicks off with a pounding bass drum, distorted guitar, and the squeal of a muted trumpet. Their playing has no discernible melody and the instruments seem disjointed. All of a sudden, an aggressive, upbeat version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” emerges from the chaos. The theme repeats and Oberst’s vocals join in the second time around. The song’s structure contains eight verses, each four lines long, and no chorus.

The first verse sets a dark mood: “The sun came up with no conclusions / Flowers sleeping in their beds / The city cemetery’s humming / I’m wide awake; it’s morning.” The second verse continues to establish the mood: “I have my drugs, I have my woman / they keep away my loneliness / my parents they have their religion / but sleep in separate houses.” Besides the obvious play on Marx’s opiate of the masses quote, the song has painted a picture of a world at sleep, figuratively if not literally, a world where our addictions, relationships, and belief structures keep us from realizing that the city cemetery is humming.

As the third verse begins, the drum roll of a militaristic-sounding snare drum is added to the tune. The third verse brings focus to what the singer is describing: “I read the body count out of the paper / and now it’s written all over my face / nobody ever plans to sleep out in the gutter / sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place.” Verbally, this verse is a mixed bag. The glorification of sleeping on the street is na├»ve and immature. At the same time, the image of newspaper ink imprinted across a person’s face is powerful, as is the link between poverty and feeling the effects of war.

However, it is the sixth verse of “Road to Joy” that is the most striking and disturbing. “So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing / It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win / And no one’s sure how all of this got started / But we’re gonna make ‘em god-damn certain how it’s gonna end.” Exactly what to do with this verse has always posed a problem to me. For one thing, it is impossibly immoral so the temptation is to think that Oberst’s lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, that he is aping jingoism and poking fun at songs like those done by the likes of country-singer Toby Keith. However, I also think he may be making a point about apathy and how easy it is to go along with the ways of your government. Even so, these lyrics are decidedly troubling and maybe that is the point of them: to make us feel uncomfortable.

Following the seventh verse, the song makes space for a solo, though to call it a solo is largely imprecise. Rather, it is an a-rhythmic cacophony of distorted guitars, muted trumpet, and pounding drums. The sound is formless, intense, angry, and blaring. Into this chaos, Oberst inserts his own voice by literally screaming the first verse again at the top of his lungs. This time, the “I’m awake; it’s morning” has a different meaning. His outrage is based in awareness.

What I love most about this song is the willingness to transform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” into an angry, fast-paced song replete with a military snare-drum and heavily distorted instrumentation. The song leaves an impression that is hard to shake.

Here are some links to versions of "Road to Joy" on YouTube:

Live on the Craig Ferguson Show (with a smashed trumpet).
Live in NYC with a 20+ piece band.
Another version of the song.
A live version of the song performed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

[Other Bright Eyes songs worthy of mention are: “Method Acting” and “Waste of Paint” off the album Lifted...; “At the Bottom of Everything” and “Old Soul Song” off I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; “Easy / Lucky / Free” off Digital Ash in a Digital Urn; and, “I Must Belong Somewhere” and “Four Winds” off Cassadaga. I will discuss the Bright Eyes song “Light Pollution” later in this series.]